Tuesday, August 21, 2012

How fast is your Internet?

need for speed
Well according to Akamai, a high-performance Web and analytics company, the good old USA lags in 14th place behind the likes of Belgium, Ireland and Latvia when it comes to internet speed. For those dying to know, South Korea comes in 1st Place. The details of the Akamai study (download the entire report here - PDF) were recently chronicled in an article on ZDNet called "The Internet is Getting Faster."  It is probably still a bit technical for the average American to understand, but in the final analysis, the log-jam in the USA is related to the "last mile" of  our connections. More about this below, but first let me briefly explain how the internet gets to you.

Most Americans' home internet connection comes through their cable TV provider ("cable internet") or the local telephone company (DSL). A small, but increasing number of Americans are now connecting via their cell phone (known by various names including cellular 2G, 3G, or 4G, etc.); they do this by using their mobile devices or by "tethering" them to their home computer. And a still smaller minority have super-fast access through a fiber optics connection to the internet (e.g., Verizon FIOS). Clearly, fiber optics is the way to go if you have a need for speed, but only a very small part of the country has access to this method at the present time and this is not likely to increase soon because of the great expense of installation.

So cable internet provides the fastest option for most users. Oh, and in case you were thinking this, DSL is the slowest, despite what your telephone company tells you. And DSL will never get faster because the telephone lines are regulated by federal laws that intentionally keep them, well, slow.

According to the ZDNet article, the fastest state in the union is Delaware. Yeah, I know, Delaware. I guess Joe Biden got together with Al Gore and put the fix in early.

I was reflecting on this article with a friend recently and he wanted to know how to test his own internet connection speed. I just assumed everyone knew how to do this, but apparently I was wrong. For the curious, head right over to Speedtest.net and check out your connection. You may want to compare that with what your internet provider advertises as the fastest download and upload speeds. But make sure you read the fine print. Anyway you'll want to check the speed several times over several days (see more below).

I have been generally pleased with my switch over to Time Warner Cable (TWC) last year. I had been using DSL for years and was getting about 3 MBS down and 2 MBS upload speed. But I was pretty amazed when TWC gave me close to 10 MBS the first time I tested. Upload is much slower on cable internet. The cable companies want to reserve the "bandwidth" to download, but for $10 more per month you can increase all of this. I'm now averaging 15-20 MBS download speeds and about 2 MBS upload. I can live with that.

To compare these - and your own results from what Akamai reports, here's what the ZDNet article says:
Within the US, “Delaware  [yes Delaware] remained the fastest state in the union, with an average connection speed that improved 24% quarter-over-quarter to just over 10 Mbps. New Hampshire remained the second fastest state, improving 15% to 9.4 Mbps. All of the top 10  states joined Delaware and New Hampshire in having quarterly changes that exceeded 10%, as did 38 other states across the country. Only Minnesota, California, and Nebraska improved  by less than 10% as compared to the fourth quarter of 2011, though they did not trail very far behind, with average growth rates around 9%.  Arkansas remained the state with the lowest average connection speed, though it increased 14% quarter over-quarter to 3.6 Mbps.”

That business of the "last mile" that I noted above (the connection that brings the internet to your house) makes all the difference in the world when it comes to internet speed. If you are connected via fiber optics, you are on a nice strand of fiberglass that loops around your neighborhood and provides a connection to the internet at the speed of - you guess it - light! And yes, the cable internet providers do this in essentially the same way, and at the speed of light, but their coaxial cable just doesn't have the same capacity as fiber.

You should also know that internet speed is affected by a lot of variables - the biggest of which is how many customers are "on the line" at the same time. Fiber optics customers and cable internet customers are both adversely affected more by these "crowding" effects. DSL, which has a direct link from your house to your telephone company's "switch," is not affected by crowding at this point of the connection, but from the "switch" on, you internet speeds are also at the mercy of crowding. In addition to crowding issues, weather and terrain can adversely affect cellular internet, especially if you live in a rural state like Maine. Anyone with a cell phone knows that the reliability of cellular service is pretty poor everywhere.

And finally, you should also know that all of the internet providers are experimenting with something called "throttling." This is the intentional slowing down of throughput so no one customer hogs all the bandwidth. It is a very controversial issue and will likely get more serious in the years ahead unless the internet service providers can find a way to increase capacity.

All of this is why you have to check your internet connection speed multiple times over multiple days. You should begin to see a pattern; certain times of the day when things are more sluggish than others. Make sure you are testing with a computer that is directly connected by a wire to the modem. Wireless (WiFi) connections in your home will be affected by multiple factors that will slow down your connection speed even further (I should write a whole separate article about this).

So, have fun folks - enjoy your travels on the information superhighway...and don't worry about getting caught speeding, it's just not going to happen here in the USA.

Photo credit: Image licensed by Creative Commons by Internet and Tacos